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May 15, 2014

Das Boot

by Franz Patrick


Boot, Das (1981)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Captain-Lieutenant Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow) is assigned by his German superiors to take a crew, most of them young and inexperienced, along with enthusiastic Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), Naval Correspondent whose job is to take photographs and jot down acts of heroism, in a U-boat to attack English ships in hopes of gaining advantage in World War II. Prior to boarding, as the party in a brothel begins to wind down, Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock and Chief Engineer Fritz Grade (Klaus Wennemann) stand by the bar and express their exasperation toward the war, knowing there is a real possibility that they will not be able to make it back.

Based on the autobiographical novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim, once “Das Boot” has successfully pulled me into its powerful gravitational pull, I found it very difficult to veer my attention away from it—even if the running time is well over three hours. Every detail in the boat is so meticulously presented and handled, it is almost like watching a documentary. I was so invested in what was going on, at one point, because the men look so sweaty and grimy, I had an itchy urge to wash my hands.

Unlike most mindless war pictures that seem to glorify violence by immediately diving into the action, the screenplay aims to challenge us on a psychological level. By focusing on small details like a fly hovering over a picture on the wall and a person’s posh eating habits, we feel very claustrophobic only about thirty minutes into it. Images of men literally being constantly at arm’s length of each other add to the tension, claustrophobia, and drama.

Despite the gravity of the plot, the film is not without sublimely executed comedic touches. Lt. Werner taking pictures and asking the crew to pose a certain way in order to get the best angles of their faces and the background alleviates the depression and trepidation that they are going through even for just a little while. It is a masterstroke because by giving us scenes where we can genuinely laugh, they force us to breathe in deeply, refresh our brain cells, so we are prepared for the thrills, suspense, and horrors just waiting around the corner.

The action is unrelenting, particularly of scenes when nothing can be heard except for the ultrasonic detector pulses employed by the English in order to track down submarines hiding below the surface. Sitting in the U-boat with the characters is like hoping for a hungry great white shark to realize that the trail of blood it is following is a false lead.

Aside from the surprising smoothness of the picture’s ability to jump across genres, another surprise is that even though we are watching the story unfold from the German’s perspective, the high-ranking leaders supporting the Nazi cause, the crew feel little to no allegiance to the men in office. They are readily able to put on an act in front of select officials in order to avoid punishment. For them the war is simply about survival.

There is one moving scene in which the captain must decide what to do with English crewmen drowning in an ocean of fire. By highlighting the characters’ humanity, especially their flaws, we do not primarily consider them as Germans working for the Nazis. We perceive them as desperate people who simply hope to make it back home in one piece.

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, what separates “Das Boot” from its contemporaries is that it is an anti-war film but not anti-patriotic. It makes us want to give more value to all soldiers—not just those who we consider to be our own—something that we should be doing in the first place.

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